Name: Heather Onoh
Company Name: Smarter Grid Int.
Designation: Chief Executive Officer
Meet Heather Onoh, the visionary Chief Executive Officer of Smarter Grid Int., who embarks on an inspiring journey within the dynamic landscape of sustainable energy entrepreneurship. Heather’s narrative unfolds from spearheading the privatization of a 1020 MW thermal power plant to her passionate commitment to bridging the electricity gap in underserved communities. With a customer-centric approach and innovative solutions, Heather has impacted over 250,000 lives, driving transformative change in Nigeria’s energy landscape. Join us in exploring Heather Onoh’s achievements, challenges, and aspirations as she continues to illuminate the path toward accessible and affordable electricity solutions in this edition of the HER Success Stories series.
Could you share your personal journey in becoming an entrepreneur and what inspired you to pursue your current business?
My journey commenced with the privatization of the power sector. Our parent company acquired a 1020 MW thermal power plant, and I spearheaded the privatization of this asset. Subsequently, I assumed the role of the Managing Director for the initial five years. In this capacity, I visited communities near the power plant and was confronted with the stark reality that some residents had never experienced electricity. This poignant realization compelled me to make a firm decision to ensure access to electricity for those at the base of the economic pyramid.
Embarking on extensive research, I discovered viable approaches to providing electricity to these underserved populations. Motivated by this, I resigned from my position as the Managing Director of the power plant and dedicated myself to developing customer-centric products that address the electricity needs of those living off the grid. Further research revealed that the government had no plans to extend the grid to these rural areas, deeming it commercially unviable. Consequently, I crafted various product types to cater to the challenges faced by individuals and businesses without grid access.
Throughout my research, I identified that over 94 million Nigerians are not connected to the grid, with over 30 million having never experienced electricity. The gravity of this situation deeply affected me, and I am pleased to share that I now have over 60,000 customers whose lives have been positively impacted through the deployment of my products. This endeavor has resulted in the transformation of over 250,000 lives.
How has your background and life experiences influenced the mission and values of your company, and the impact you aim to make in the world?
Having experienced periods without electricity in my early years, notably during visits to my grandparents in the village, after which I traveled for my education abroad. I was astonished to find upon returning after many years, that the situation had worsened without any signs of improvement. This realization ignited a profound passion within me to engage in the electrification business, aiming to provide energy to those deprived.
My overarching goal is to ensure that no individual lives without electricity, and no business suffers due to the lack or high cost of electricity, thereby impacting their profitability. I have committed myself to dedicating the remainder of my life to developing sustainable and affordable electricity solutions. This endeavor is focused on enabling those at the base of the economic pyramid to move toward the foreground and, eventually, extend these benefits to the broader grid. I firmly believe that, particularly in developing nations like Nigeria, there exist technologies and approaches capable of significantly improving our power situation.
In essence, my mission is to contribute to the reduction of the number of people living without electricity and businesses struggling due to exorbitant electricity costs.
What are some of the achievements or milestones in your business journey so far? Can you share an example of a project or initiative that you’re most proud of?
Thus far, we boast a customer base exceeding 60,000, spanning both businesses and households. Our presence extends to 26 states in Nigeria, and our trajectory continues to broaden. One initiative that particularly stands out is the innovative business design I proposed to Airtel. In response to their phasing out of kiosks for selling recharge cards, I advocated for a multifaceted approach, showcasing how a single solarized kiosk could offer a minimum of three services. This included facilitating tier-one bank account openings, conducting capturing and BVN registration, commercial phone charging, SIM card registration, and providing training on internet connectivity. This comprehensive strategy encapsulates the energy, financial, and digital inclusion, and I take immense pride in it. Airtel adopted this model as their flagship for the payment bank, providing substantial exposure for our business. Additionally, I am proud of the solarization project for university mini-study centers. Recognizing that students often seek well-lit areas for night-time studying, I successfully solarized several classrooms, enabling them to study effectively after dark. These achievements, both in the corporate and educational sectors, are a testament to our commitment to innovation and impact.
Can you describe the challenges you faced during your entrepreneurial journey? Did you encounter any specific gender-specific challenges? How did you overcome them?
Access to funding posed a significant challenge, particularly as a female entrepreneur. Securing funding, both locally and internationally, proved to be exceptionally difficult until my encounter with companies like SIMA and AECF. Initiating my business was an arduous task until their support came into play.
Another hurdle I confronted was the technical know-how of the sector. Although addressing this challenge required extensive nationwide training at various levels, it proved manageable, enabling me to assemble a proficient team to propel business expansion.
Additionally, there were issues with product adoption and distribution due to an inadequately structured distribution network. Currently, I am actively addressing this by forging partnerships with institutional organizations boasting well-established distribution networks, such as TELCOs, fin-tech firms, and microfinance banks. This strategic collaboration is instrumental in enhancing both distribution reach and product recognition.
What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned as an entrepreneur that you would like to pass on to others considering a similar path?
One of the most profound lessons I have learned in the sector is the imperative of making my product customer-centric within this ecosystem. Customers hold utmost importance, necessitating the development of a grassroots approach, which is precisely what I implemented, yielding positive results in terms of product creation. Understanding the customers’ needs, comprehending how they require energy, identifying where it is needed, and discerning their intentions with the energy are crucial steps. It is paramount to involve them from product creation to distribution and even revenue collection, ensuring their active participation in the ecosystem. This approach essentially entails using people to bring the products to other people, fostering a democratic model that positions the product as one created by the people, for the people, and of the people.
Looking ahead, what are your aspirations and goals for the future and how do you plan to continue making a difference through your work?
Looking ahead, I aspire to reach out to one million customers over the next five years. I aim to expand my product offerings from Nigeria to other African countries to impact more individuals and businesses, thereby increasing their revenues. Additionally, I seek to develop more products that foster financial sustainability for numerous small business owners, lifting them from the base of the pyramid to the economic foreground.
Furthermore, I am determined to forge partnerships with institutions whose vision aligns with ours — the vision of elevating people from the base of the pyramid. I am particularly interested in collaborating with those whose products are vertically integrated with ours. This strategic collaboration aims to propel us toward our objective of connecting with one million people, providing them access to renewable, affordable, and sustainable electricity within a remarkably short timeframe. I am eager to collaborate with additional institutions that share our vision of uplifting individuals from the base of the pyramid. I am particularly interested in partnering with those whose products are seamlessly integrated with ours, as this synergy will expedite our mission of providing renewable, affordable, and sustainable electricity to one million people within a short timeframe.
Heather Onoh’s journey encapsulates the spirit of resilience and innovation, demonstrating the profound impact of sustainable energy solutions on communities. As the CEO of Smarter Grid Int., Heather’s commitment to addressing energy poverty has not only transformed lives in Nigeria but also paved the way for a brighter, more sustainable future. Her dedication to customer-centric approaches and strategic partnerships underscores the importance of inclusive, accessible, and affordable electricity solutions. As we conclude this chapter in the HER Success Stories series, Heather Onoh’s story serves as an inspiration for aspiring entrepreneurs and a testament to the positive ripple effects achievable through sustainable energy initiatives.
About Smarter Grid International (SGI)
Smarter Grid International (SGI) stands at the forefront of Nigeria’s renewable energy landscape, driven by a powerful mission to eradicate energy poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa. Founded and led by Heather Onoh, SGI is a distinguished woman-owned company dedicated to providing accessible and affordable energy solutions for homes and businesses. What sets SGI apart is its commitment to impactful Human Capital Development Schemes, particularly focused on empowering rural women, youths, and communities in IDP camps. With a predominantly women-led structure, SGI champions inclusive initiatives such as the “Triple Agent” program, where women are trained to become super agents, bridging the digital divide, addressing energy deprivation, and promoting financial inclusion. The “SGI Rural Women Tech Squad,” funded by GSMA, introduces an all-women auxiliary technical team, empowering rural women as solar installers and super agents, fostering product trust, quicker adoption, and creating substantial employment opportunities. The “Solar Angels” initiative, a peer-to-peer solar marketing network, spreads the transformative impact of SGI’s services, ensuring sustainable product awareness and contributing to the wider goal of enhancing lives through renewable energy. SGI’s innovative and socially impactful approach marks it as a trailblazer in the journey towards a more sustainable and empowered future.
For more information, please visit http://www.smartergridint.com/